Joh – The Undue Influence of Surveillance Technology Companies on Policing

This week we consider the relationship and impact between technology companies and police surveillance. The article we are reviewing is by Elizabeth E. Joh, and comes from the New York University Law Review, Vol.92 Sept 2017, 101-130.

Here’s what we thought:


This paper is interesting for the way in which it explores the marketisation of law enforcement and policy making, with technology manufacturers such as Taser and others gaining undue influence over what the police do, and the decisions that get made. These problems emerge from the increasing reliance on technology provided by a limited number of vendors, each of whom may have interests beyond the mere application of law. There also then seems to be a problem of unfair competition, wherein companies such as Taser gain new contracts on account of existing business relationships. We are getting to a stage then when not only does technology start to dictate use, but the design decisions behind certain new technologies are then influencing policy decisions, even though design decisions will not have been made on exclusively law-enforcement lines.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


As of the time of writing, the newspapers are full with articles on the Carpenter ruling, so this article seems especially timely.  From a policy standpoint, I personally feel that this is an important subject about which there is little public awareness yet, which is troublesome. The actions of industry seem like they could seriously threaten human rights and civil liberties, and it is important to scrutinise these practices with a public debate. The influence of private actors in public policy is of course not limited to law enforcement and juridical practices, but in these sectors human rights are especially at risk. The issues described will likely also become important issues in the world of defence technology as well. 

However, I considered the level of analysis in article not seem extremely substantive. I would have appreciated a more in-depth analysis of how the industry acts as an actor in this debate, and what the result are of their influence on law enforcement and juridical practices, and what the larger societal implications are of these practices. I would also be very interested in a more in-depth investigation in the view of law enforcement on these developments. The actual political and societal processes in play are not really analysed. However, as this is a legal article, that is also to be expected. 

The article is very US-based, both through the empirical cases and the legal analysis, as is a lot of literature on the subject. I would be very interested to read more on this European perspective, both on the actual use, and on the legal and political analysis, and to see whether there are any significant differences. Digo’s articles on this subject are very European-focused so they provide an interesting contrast, but the methodological and theoretical approach is very different. Most of the articles on European surveillance technology come from International Political Sociology it seems – which is a great theoretical framework, but I wish the subject was taken up more by other schools as well. 

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels 


This piece by Joh was really interesting. The increasing use of surveillance technologies by police services continues major trends two trends, firstly the militarisation of the police, and secondly the increasing influence of technology companies in job roles. The militarisation of the police is often poorly described as though the purchasing of body armour and helmets to protect officers in crowd control or counter-terrorism situations is a bad thing, and that the police want to go to war with the populace. However, the reality is more that technologies used by militaries when performing similar operations can easily migrate to police-use. For example, technologies used to assist a manhunt for a terrorist in a warzone can also be used in a man hunt for a murder suspect in a crowded city. However, as Joh suggests, the fact that in both situations technology firms exert undue influence on policy and obfuscation of how these technologies work when they have a public impact in unnerving. 

When we think of the increasing influence of technology companies, we often fall into Hollywood imaginaries where corporate technology giants have some sort of ideological bent towards unrivalled political power which requires masses of data and the sacrifice of privacy. Yet, the reality is that this increasing influence is often driven by market forces and a simple desire to keep up with, or ahead of, competitors. The increasing presence of technology in policing is also a reflection of its increasing presence in all of our lives, and the drive toward greater and greater automation. Years ago, beat cops were the eyes and ears of police forces, nowadays technological surveillance can do the same tasks without needed ever expensive pay or conditions. Yet, the fact that policing is a public service, and we associate policing with the presence of officers, means that we are uneasy about such automation, and the handing over of such tasks to machines. Perhaps the real story behind all of this is that humans simply prefer dealing with other humans whom they can develop trust and relationships with, rather than machines which you do not understand. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Bigo – Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease

The article we are discussing this week considers the securitisation of immigration. It is a fascinating look at a concept that is of massive importance, particularly in the UK following on from the Brexit vote, and in Europe generally following on from the migrant crises affecting many countries as a result of the war in Syria and Iraq.

The piece is by Didier Bigo, and is from Alternatives Vol 27, Issue 1_suppl, pp. 63 – 92.

Here’s what we thought:


In this article Didier Bigo explores the discursive figure of the immigrant and the use of securitisation against the ‘dangerous’ figure of the immigrant as part of a Foucauldian ‘governmentality’. I found the approach quite interesting, not least because I agree with the author that these issues feel somewhat neglected in fields such as security studies, law, and international relations, which tend to focus on the concrete and the measurable, as opposed to the more abstract fields of philosophy and related disciplines. 

One of the central points that Bigo points to in this piece is the modern concept of the State. Here Bigo argues that the securitisation of society is based on ‘our conception of the state as a body or a container for the polity’ (65). I agree with Bigo’s point here, and wonder, what do other members of the group think about the modern-day concept of the State? What comes first: the securitisation  or the border itself? How do we define borders in the 21st century? Are borders even important? Or rather, are we led to believe that they are more important than they really are? 

And finally, on a related EU / Brexit-based point: what impact does the dissolution of borders have on national identity and the formation of a ‘national conscience’? 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


Bigo is of course a classic in literature on surveillance, and the main thinker behind the Paris School on Securitization theory. It thus seems appropriate to read some of his work when discussing the role of the industry this month. His article is a bit older (2002), but explains his theoretical framework well, and is a useful model for analysing the security landscape in Europe. I also personally feel that his analysis is extremely applicable to the security landscape in Europe today. I appreciate the thinking that went into it, the heavy building on sociological theory, and the fact that it dares to step out the commonly accepted narratives on security. However, it is very hard to read and uses a lot of jargon for outsiders. 

This article both explains securitisation from the Paris School, and is a meta-analysis of the different narratives on security. We have not read much Critical Security Studies yet in TTAC. However, the reading group has a wide interdisciplinary membership, and reads on a variety of subjects and from a variety of schools, which I think is a great approach. I would thus not per se blame this open a policy of denial. The reading group is generally also aware of how political both the literature and the subject matter is in their work. Nonetheless this article serves as a useful reminder to be aware of where the articles come from, and in which narratives they fit. The articles discussed are not just academic, they are also often the subject of both national and international political discussions, and the different interest groups play an active role in shaping the narrative surrounding these technologies.  

In the subject of autonomous weapon systems, academics do not only produce analytical articles, but there are many actively campaigning for specific politics, both in favour and against the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Think tanks, militaries around the world produce a lot of reports, and key leaders from the tech industry are regularly found in the newsletter. Bigo’s article is useful in remembering that these different narratives are not neutral, and are a product of their environment, often even actively shaped, and to remain critical of everything we read. 

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels 


I found this piece really interesting, particularly in the wake Brexit and of several terror attacks in 2017. The characterisation by the British right-wing press of immigrants as ‘others’ to be feared and have their loyalties questioned is something which has troubled myself and many others, so it is good to find pieces which investigate this. Bigo’s characterisation of common ‘critical’ discourses is illuminating; he suggests that those NGO’s and academics who criticise the political right take an ‘if only they understood’ approach towards politicians, journalists, citizens and governments who play a role in othering immigrants. However, this portrays these people as being unaware of the whole picture, and unaware of how nice immigrant communities can be, and of their economic and cultural contributions towards the states in which they reside. Yet, we see in recent years the rise of groups such as Britain First, and people such as Katy Hopkins, who are perfectly aware that they are stoking the fires of ideological conflict purely for political expediency and for greater public exposure and infamy. With a more recent rise in fake news, and increasing prevalence of politically motivated quasi-intellectual writings, I’m not sure how these groups/people who are willfully adding to a wholly negative discourse can be combatted without simply turning it into an ideological battle, which always seems to just result in entrenchment and stalemate with no real victor – so nothing would really change. More study is needed, or maybe just wider reading on my part. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


Let us know what you think in the comments below

Sandvik – The Public Order Drone: Proliferation and Disorder in Civil Airspace

This week, we consider the use of drones in creating and maintaining public order, particularly by the police. We are commenting on a chapter from ‘The Good Drone’ (Ashgate, 2016) by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik.

Here’s what we thought:


Closely related to another piece we are reading this month, this article focuses on the proliferation of drones and the potential for disorder associated with their use. In particular, the author examines the ‘systematic blurring of the boundaries between the military and the civilian’ (11), and the use of discourse surrounding the ‘good’ use of drones to prepare citizens for the ‘paramilitarization’ of policing (8) – the use of military technologies on civilian populations.

For me, this blurring between the military and the civilian is an interesting one, though it is certainly nothing new. However, with the technology now so widely available, and accessible even by members of the public, it would seem that the marketisation of technology becomes a powerful tool for normalisation. The more a technology is made available and presented as ‘good’ with ‘endless possibilities’, the more we are also implying the dangers of exact same technology, and laying the groundwork for other possibilities not explicitly stated. Before we know it, we are no longer asking whether drones should be used in situations such as law enforcement and public order, but rather how and in what ways.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


Sandvik’s “The Public Order Drone: Proliferation and Disorder in Civil Airspaceprovides a valuable account of the emergence and expansion of the “public order drone” narrative. The chapter explores the interplay of narratives that are both constituting and potentially undermining efforts to normalise/legitimise the concept of the ‘good’ drone for public order policing.

The author frames this piece in a practical way, taking the reader through a series of discussions to analyse the public order drone narrative in different contexts. The initial section lays the foundation by presenting the rationale behind the public order drone narrative. As Sandvik notes, due to the negative associations often tied to drones as a result of their use in warfare, identifying and promoting “good” uses for drones has become central to the drone industry in an effort to address this underlying and persistent “public relations issue”. Sandvik describes this industry effort as a “crafted moral economy of ‘good’ drones” (p. 6) aimed at normalising the broad range of drones and their seemingly endless number of uses. Four areas of discussion are then focused upon to present the reader with a view of how the meaning attached to the concept of the public order drone has been expanded. These areas concern: the blurring of the line between the military and the civilian; the shift from surveillance to weaponisation in public order policing; the forms of disorder caused by drone proliferation; and both the endless possibilities and risks associated with drone use.

Of particular interest to me was Sandvik’s section on disorder. Summed up nicely earlier in the chapter, the author draws attention to the paradox inherent to the public order drone narrative: “order and disorder are intimately connected: the endless, public-order uses imagined for drones are mirrored by endless possibilities for disorder” (p. 3). Sandvik also notes in her introduction that the notion of “drone disorder” – referring to both disorderly drones (flying rogue) and disorder created by drones such as “panic or suspicion in the face of events such as drone flyovers of nuclear installations” —must be taken into consideration together with all of the promises and perceptions of order. I was disappointed, though, that the concept of disorder created by drones was not expanded upon to its full potential later in the chapter. Whilst a discussion was undertaken that considered some of the responses underway due to the desire to protect sensitive or military sites from flyovers, the issue of panic and suspicion was not directly referred to again and I felt this was a missed opportunity as it could have been expanded upon in other contexts to further highlight the paradoxical nature of the public order drone narrative.

Overall, I found this an interesting piece to read and think the author has established a useful account of how the meaning around the public order drone has evolved as different perceptions and influences have simultaneously enriched and complicated the overarching narrative. It will be interesting to see how the narrative continues to develop as new technological developments, designs and uses for the public order drone emerge.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University


Sandvik’s discussion of police armed drones really interested me. However, I think the idea that police-owned drones could be equipped with rubber bullets, fireable tasers, or even live bullets might be a bit fanciful. A flying drone is not a very stable platform from which to launch a projectile. Thus, bullets and tasers fired from an unstable barrel are not likely to hit their target. The advantage military drones firing missiles have is that missiles can be guided. However, police do not generally use any form of arms that could be guided. Thus, police drones would be restricted to only firing that which they could accurately hit a target with, or would need to use projectiles where pin-point accuracy is unnecessary, such as deploying tear-gas.

The surveillance capability of police drones would not be affected by this, however. Surveillance alone can be a powerful tool for the police. A criminal knowing they are being watched is unlikely to carry out a crime If they think they will be caught and punished. Thus, the presence of drones, just as with the presence of CCTV, can deter crime. When it comes to CCTV, we accept the temporary intrusion into our privacy. I don’t think this changes just because the camera could move if attached to a drone. However, we accept CCTV as a condition of visiting a particular shop, or establishment, but if we were to be regularly surveilled by drones, we would be accepting an intrusion into our privacy on the condition of simply being allowed to exist in a particular location. It is that which seems so unnerving about surveillance drones, in order to live or work as we want we would also need to accept intrusions into our privacy from which there is no escape. Such occurrences go beyond security, and go into societal control.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Singer – Corporate Warriors: The Rise and Ramifications of the Privatized Military Industry

This week, we consider Peter Singer’s keystone piece in the study of private military contractors (PMCs). It is important to distinguish them from mercenaries, who are usually individuals employed to fight, whereas a PMC usually has a corporate business structure and are employed to provide a whole host of military-related services, from intelligence gathering and analysis, combat support, and providing security.

Although this is the first post in a series of comments to pieces on the theme of ‘Industry and Security’, this will be the final post of 2017. We are taking a break over Christmas, and will be back posting in January. We would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading and contributing to posts, and we look forward to more fascinating discussion in the new year.

On to what we think of the article…


This excellent article explores some of the many issues surrounding ‘privatized military firms’ (PMFs) operating within warzones across the globe. According to the author, these PMFs represent the ‘new business form of war’ in which market forces play an increasingly important role in the global military, and political landscape. Indeed, it could be argued they change the landscape completely, for with the rise of PMFs so State accountability takes a back-seat, and war loses any remaining ideological  motivation it may have previously had.

One particularly interesting question for me, is the recruitment and retention of soldiers / operators / employees (call them what you will!) within these PMFs. While the author raises the question of responsibility and the problematic of balancing ‘getting things done’ with having a good human rights record, there is also then the issue of responsibility when it comes to the actual training of these troops in the first place.

Here in the UK, the National Health Service pays to train doctors and nurses, and yet once they have been trained, these same doctors and nurses are effectively free to go and work wherever they so choose. This same problematic would seem to arise with the modern-day PMFs. If an militarily advanced Western State invests hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds in training high quality soldiers, what happens when these same soldiers decide to work for a PMF? What can States do to stop these same expensive soldiers one day coming back and fighting for the ‘enemy’ further down the line? Where does responsibility for these soldiers begin and end? And how on Earth can you hope to hold a PMF, and its ‘employees’ to account?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


The article is a little bit older, so the question is of course what relevance it still has for the present-day situation.  The article came at a time where much of the debate on global conflicts centered on warlords and civil wars in the Global South, while current analysis of warfare has a very different focus. However, it is one of the earliest articles describing the role of private military companies in security practices, and as such has been very important for that field. For people interested in more articles on this subject, I would recommend the work of Anna Leander.

I appreciate how the author points out the larger historical trends towards privatisation of government services, the transformation of type of conflicts, and the effects of the end of Cold War on military systems. It creates a clear picture on how private military industry has developed. I think a larger discussion on the influence of globalisation would have also fit well into this picture, as well as an analysis of the changing structure of the international arms trade in the 1990s. Considering it is written in 2002 however, it is remarkable how many of the implications and problems mentioned – such as a lack of oversight, imperialism by invitation or human rights violations – have also occurred during the US invasion of Iraq, which saw a high amount of private military contractors too.

I find the concept of Private Military Industry as used by the author very slippery however. Singer purposefully talks about “industry” instead of corporations to include actors offering other types of military services, as well as the overall industry instead of subsections.  But what falls under this exactly? When does something become corporate, only when it is registered as an official company? That is a very Western view on what falls under the private sector as it ignores the informal economy, and thus does not necessarily apply worldwide. Does this include all actors involved in war working for a profit? Smuggling is a huge component in many conflicts, and it often cannot be precisely determined whether resource extraction and sales are the cause of a conflict or just a means to finance conflict – when do profit-oriented motives of warlords turn them into private military actors? Defence companies have always played a large role in warfare, from supplying weapons to maintaining and sometimes operating them (as the author rightly points out), but then what are the new developments? Where does the military-entertainment complex fit in here? Of course, a lack of an airtight framework is one of the lacunas that Singer points out, but he does not really criticise the concept or define it more closely. If everything is private military industry, the concept is analytically meaningless.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels


The idea of the corporate warrior fascinates me no end. It is a clear example of the state monopoly on violence crumbling, and the increasing capabilities which powerful individuals can have at their finger tips.

Most of the discussion about private military companies focusses on a corporate-industrial-military complex, however a couple of years ago there were discussions about the potential for their use for humanitarian reasons. During the lightening ISIS advance, a large group of the Yezidi group were trapped on Mount Sinjar. At the time, it was politically difficult for any state to deploy military forces for a humanitarian intervention. However, financially powerful individuals could have organised their own humanitarian intervention through the use of a PMC.

This would have been a unique moment. The fact that it is even possible shows that the state monopoly on violence is long gone. The ramifications of this could be that financially powerful individuals could use PMC power not just for their own security, but to realise their political ambitions as well. Potentially, this could result in a larger number of civil wars, rebellions, or even annexation and fiefdoms and created all using PMC power and purely because somebody with enough money and desire wanted it. What then will become of the international system when some big players do not play by the rules of traditional statehood? Or quasi-states are created purely as a toy for the rich and powerful?

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think in the comments below.